Taking a Stand for New York

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Taking a Stand for New York
by Lisa Fasolo Frishman, Engage New York

A few years ago, I was traveling the state extensively meeting with foundation leaders from Jamestown to Lake Placid, from Albany to Buffalo, from Syracuse to Long Island. I was struck by how many foundations were serving on local coalitions or collective impact models that were working to address issues like racial equity, social inclusion, early childhood and, safe and healthy housing but didn’t have a focus on state-wide advocacy efforts as part of their agenda to drive towards systems-level change. Even more surprising, foundation leaders were often unaware of other regional initiatives similar to their own and were missing crucial opportunities to work together to amplify the messages of change. While most leaders I met with recognized the need for state-wide advocacy activities as part of their work, there was a reticence to engage in those type of efforts.

Fast forward to today. The current political moment has forced most of us off the sidelines and into the advocacy arena. There isn’t a conference, coalition or working group meeting that isn’t standing room only if there is an opportunity to share information and resources on how to implement advocacy strategies. Many of the large national foundations are openly encouraging regional and place-based funders to play a more significant leadership role in supporting advocacy organizations and designing internal advocacy strategies with an eye towards systems-level change.

As Fred Ali, President and CEO of the Weingart Foundation in California has eloquently stated, “Speaking directly to philanthropy’s role, I continue to believe that the solutions to many of our challenges, and the system change we need, will be found through engagement with government and other actors within the ecosystems we work.”

Program officers have moved from trying to convince their boards to support advocacy to sharing resources on how to evaluate their advocacy efforts. Foundations are convening more often to discuss how they can work together, if they should pool funds to support advocacy campaigns, retooling messaging, and provide general operating support for grassroots advocates who are working tirelessly to preserve vital resources and programs in communities.

Here in New York State, foundation leaders are asking "how can we magnify the messages our grantee partners champion. How can we raise awareness about what’s happening in communities throughout the state as a result of recent policy decisions, and then what, if anything, can we as foundation colleagues do about it together? How are we bearing witness to the lives of vulnerable New Yorkers affected by the current climate in Washington?"

Wherever you focus your grantmaking in New York State, one fact is true for all of us - Albany is where fiscal resources are divvied up, and policies are set. Yet, few of us spend time there advocating for the communities and causes we care about. Advocacy presents an exciting opportunity to build bridges across the state, provide stories and data to policymakers to shape how they understand the issues and begin to eliminate the pitting of region against region we have grown accustomed to in recent years.

This is where Engage New York can make a difference. Engage New York is a network of foundations from across the state that, back in 2010, set a course to learn and support each other’s work. The last eighteen months have solidified our resolve to develop a common agenda that promotes equity, social justice, civic and community engagement to advance the lives of all New Yorkers. Our work has required us to listen to colleagues throughout the state and find commonality, opportunity, and connections. In this way, we hope to advance the agendas of our grantee leaders who are advocating in Albany for just policies that seek to eliminate social injustices.

As a starting point, we have come together to work on:

•    2020 Census with a focus on increasing participation and emphasizing how the

count will impact redistricting and federal funding in New York State;

•    Just immigration and refugee policy;

•    Safe and healthy housing; and

•    Criminal justice reform.

In each of these areas we intend to develop an action-oriented, state-focused agenda. We aim to:

•    Share real-time information about groups that are working in these areas across New York State;

•    Highlight efforts our foundation colleagues are supporting that aim to address these issues;

•    Engage foundation colleagues who are working on similar issues in different localities;

•    Map where there are intersections among foundations and among groups that address key issues; and

•    Create opportunities for foundations to develop stronger ties that enhance the work of our grantees and advance state-level policy change.

Our network is energized by the opportunities in front of us, and we invite you to join us to identify productive, strategic, and more powerful ways to achieve a more just and equitable New York. If we don’t join the advocates and the grantees now to tell the stories of our communities hurting, we will have missed an enormous opportunity to invest in the kind of change we aspire to see.

Engage New York is building a network of foundation leaders who are interested in promoting policies that advance equity among the most vulnerable and marginalized communities. To join, email staff@engagenewyork.org.

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